Vanquishing the Villain: Justice, Vengeance, and Comeuppance

Late in the third season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Katara and Zuko go on a trademark life-changing field trip, which starts as a hunt for vengeance against the man who killed Katara’s mother. Because this is a kid’s show, Katara ultimately does not kill her mother’s murderer, though the episode shockingly takes her very close, and she and Zuko both learn a valuable life lesson, “Killing isn’t the answer,” which Aang, the show’s titular character, reaffirms, “It never is.” Zuko, former adversary and banished prince of the villainous Fire Nation, answers Aang’s lesson contemplatively, “Then, how do you intend to stop my father [all-around bad guy Fire Lord Ozai, who is hell-bent on conquering the world and burning down all who oppose him]?” This puts Aang in a moral quandary that he, and indeed the audience, had not considered yet. The Fire Lord poses a serious threat to the safety of the world. How will Aang, the last of the peaceful Airbenders, stop the villain and his plans without ending his life? He ultimately figures out how.

As a writer and lover of stories, I have always been interested in the idea of comeuppance, particularly a villain’s comeuppance. That is, as The Magnificent Ambersons so clearly puts is, that nasty piece of work will on day at long last get what’s coming to him.

It is essentially the vanquishing of a villain, but the most satisfying kind of comeuppance has been appropriate to the crime or offence. In Ambersons, rich pompous brat George ends up losing his family fortune and getting crippled in a car accident. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, each of the naughty kids meets a fate befitting their brand of nastiness. Macbeth becomes paranoid to the point of turning his own people against him, and Lady Macbeth goes mad.

Often, villains getting their comeuppances leads to them meeting their ends. See: just about every bond villain. Most Disney villains fall to their (often bloodless) deaths. Thanos dies twice (which I will get into later)! Some bad guys are just too evil to survive. However, in the wake of many long running series coming to conclusions this year, from Game of Thrones final season to Marvel’s Avengers with Endgame to Star Wars with The Rise of Skywalker as well as simply thinking about how most popular movies American movies kill off their villains, and I think this is letting them off the hook.

At the end of the last episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang defeats the Fire Lord by taking away the villain’s fire-bending ability, which Aang is only able to accomplish by being in harmony with his inner self, thus rendering the Fire Lord powerless, and no longer a threat. It’s a satisfying conclusion because it is both the perfect comeuppance for the Fire Lord (once the most powerful firebender, now completely powerless), and a good lesson for kids (violence isn’t the answer) in a way that is understandable to the story and not particularly preachy. Even Azula, Zuko’s sister and the Fire Lord’s daughter, who is also powerful and just as much of a villain as Ozai, brings herself down with her own paranoia and arrogance, which ultimately leads to her defeat by Katara in a spectacular fire- vs water-bending battle, which again does not kill her but capture her in a way that makes her anger at the world futile, and it is one of the most satisfying comeuppances I have seen.

As noted, most Disney villains have a way of falling to their deaths in order to perish off screen, from the Evil Queen in Snow White to Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. We do actually see Malificent (in dragon form) and Ursula get stabbed and fall to their off-screen deaths. But I think some of the most satisfying Disney cartoon comeuppances are ones that don’t kill off the villains, just make them live with their life choices. Cinderella’s Evil Step-mother, who has to watch in horror as Cinderella marries the Prince, and Aladdin’s Jafar, who gets his wish to become the most powerful being in the land, only to be trapped for all eternity (sequels not withstanding).

The final season of Game of Thrones has been pretty much talked to death, so I won’t dive into issues better talked about elsewhere, but I will focus on how it vanquished its main villains. The Big Bad™ of the series could be argued to be the Night King, the leader of the White Walkers and the embodiment of evil.

He dies. Granted, he is the power behind an undead army marching to bring eternal winter to all the inhabitants of Westeros, so negotiating isn’t going to work. He also doesn’t speak or communicate in any other way than evil glares, so he’s basically a metaphor for death, so the only that can stop him is for Arya Stark to fly in like a badass and stab him with a magic knife until he and his army explode into shards of ice. A fitting end.

Cersei Lanister, Queen of King’s Landing, and at least from the point of view of the Starks and others positioned to be the protagonists of the series, is the show’s other main villain. She is also one of the most clever people in all of Westeros and always has plans within plans. She sometimes presents herself as an ally, can reveal a surprising vulnerability, or stab you in the back when you least expect it. She has betrayed people she loved, done horrible things, had horrible things done to her. Everything she did was to become queen, but at what cost to the people around her? She is one of the show’s most complex characters. Her comeuppance was something I was curious to see play out.

But she dies… She gets crushed to death by the stones of the crumbling castle. It’s certainly an apt metaphor for someone who used the power of the crown to protect and advance herself. But what if she had lived?

Daenerys Targaryen, protagonist for much of the series turned mad queen and villain in the last couple episodes, had a much talked about and very controversial character arc in the last season. Whether you found her turn satisfying or not, again she became the obstacle for our remaining heroes to vanquish. Again, she was another complex character, and one that had established relationships with everyone. But again, there was no reasoning with her.
So she dies… Stabbed to death by Jon Snow, the man she loved. But what if she lived and was force to give up her power? Does Westeros even recognize war crimes to charge her with?

Granted, Game of Thrones has always been a violent show, so how do other franchises handle vanquishing their big bads?

In Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (at least this phase of it) and the final battle with the Mad Titan Thanos himself, what happens to the evil prune face who dusted half the living things in the universe? Well, he dies…. Twice.

At the beginning of the movie, which picks up immediately after Avengers: Infinity War left off, half the population of the known universe has been erased by Thanos snapping his fingers in the Infinity Gauntlet. He has convinced himself into believing he is the universe’s savior and cutting down the population is somehow fair and just and will make the world a better place. It does not. Our remaining Avengers go after him on a distant planet where he has retired to a life of farming in the hopes of getting the Infinity Stones back. When they discover he has destroyed them, Thor chops Thanos’ head off in a fit of rage. The moment works well because it is not played as a triumphant beat but as a sad one (though I am sure plenty of audience members cheers this). For much of the rest of the movie Thor suffers a deep depression. Killing Thanos solved nothing.

Fast forward to the end of this 3-hour epic, the Avengers have done some wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff to retrieve the Infinity Stones from points in time before Thanos had them and use them to snap everyone who disappeared back to existence. Unfortunately, an alternate past version of Thanos follows them through time with his army and wages war to get the stones. Keep in mind this is not only an alternate universe version of Thanos but a past version who had not even had a chance to meet any of the Avengers, much less collect the stones and snap the population away to begin with. He gives a villainous speech to out heroes about how thankful he is that they showed him the error of his plan. Not that his alternate future self was wrong to erase half of life. No, he is now going to use the stones to erase 100% of everything and rebuild it in his own harmonious image. In a crowd pleasing moment, Iron Man wields the Infinity Gauntlet and snaps his fingers, erasing all of Thanos’ armies… as well as Thanos himself. Thus he dies… again.

Is it satisfying to see Thanos get dusted the way he dusted everyone else in the previous movie? Sure! Does Thanos get a lot of time to sit and think about what a bad boy he is and all the mistakes he’s made? Not really.

And this brings us to Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. Star Wars has always been about good vs. evil on a mythological scale. It’s ultimately a morality play about the light side vanquishing the dark side. The good guys win and the bad guys lose. Yay. The end.

Way back in 1983, Return of the Jedi was the final film in a complete trilogy, so while we all hoped we’d see the mythical Episodes I, II, and III (I don’t think the term “prequel” had even been coined until the late-80’s or early-90’s), and when Heir to the Empire was published in 1991, most of us just assumed this was the equivalent of the even more mysterious Episode VII. At the end of Jedi, Darth Vader turned back to the light side to save his son Luke and vanquished the evil Emperor by throwing him down an elevator shaft into the bowls of the soon to be destroyed Death Star, mark II. The overconfident Emperor, who only moments prior was about to electrocute Luke Skywalker to death and end the Jedi forever, got his perfect comeuppance by his most trusted servant turning on him when he least suspected. Vader, who by returning to the light once again became Anakin Skywalker, gave his life to save his son. It was a final act that, while it may not have redeemed him in the eyes of the larger galaxy, it showed Luke was right and there was still one last spark of good in him. Evil is punished. Good prevails. Love wins.

Fast forward through the prequel trilogy, which told the story of Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side, and to the sequel trilogy, in which the ashes of the Empire have reformed into the fanatical First Order and our heroes both old and new have to deal with the fallout of the Galactic Civil War, which everyone took for granted had a happy ending. In Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it is ruled by evil Supreme Leader Snoke, who has corrupted Han and Leia’s son Ben Solo into the Dark Side obsessed Kylo Ren, and has given “rabid cur” General Armitage Hux command of the First Order army. It should be noted that while Kylo Ren’s backstory has him coming from the good guys, as shown in other media, Hux’s backstory explains he is the son of a bad guy, a loyal Imperial officer who fled the New Republic after the Emperor’s death and helped focus others still loyal to the Empire into the para-military group the First Order.

By the end of The Force Awakens, the First Order has destroyed the government of the New Republic in a sneak attack, and Episode VIII: The Last Jedi opens with the Resistance, still loyal to the ideals of the Republic and the Rebel Alliance before them, is on the run. Supreme Leader Snoke is more powerful than ever, and Kylo and Hux are vying over who gets to be the favorite number 2 in this new galactic power.

Then, in a surprising turn of events, Kylo seems to change sides and kills Snoke, briefly teaming up with our new hero Rey, who is convinced he will turn back to the light side. However, when given the chance to save the remaining Resistance ships under fire from the First Order, Kylo doubles down. He selfishly tells Rey to forget everyone else and asks her to join him so they can rule the galaxy together. She refuses because of course she is a good person and isn’t just going to let all those people die, but Kylo becomes even more obsessed with taking both her and the Resistance down. When Hux confronts him about what happened to their boss, Kylo lies and tells him that Rey killed Snoke, and then Kylo assumes command as the new Supreme Leader, which Hux protests at first until Kylo chokes him.

So, Supreme Leader Snoke dies. He pushed and prodded Kylo, so sure he could control him, but he went to far and Kylo killed him and assumed his place. And what happens to Kylo and Hux?

Well, Hux basically has most of his power taken away from him as his rival for power Kylo Ren assumes command of the First Order, and he’s left relaying orders or getting thrown across rooms for suggesting alternate plans. He has become redundant and gets downsized.

And at the end of The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren is foiled as well. He is obsessed with destroying Rey and the Resistance, but mostly Rey because he calls off the entire squadron of TIE Fighters from the Battle of Crait to go after the Millenium Falcon.

But most important to him is to wipe out the Jedi forever, specifically Luke Skywalker. When Luke shows up outside the Resistance base, Kylo order every single gun to fire on him and to continue firing until Hux exasperated says, “Do you think you got him?” Spoiler alert, he did not.

Kylo then says he will take care of Luke himself. Even Hux says not to be distracted, but he gets thrown into a wall for such an insubordinate suggestion. Luke when faces Kylo down alone long enough for Leia and the rest of the Resistance to flee in the Falcon, and without even touching Kylo. Luke has used every amount of strength in him to Force-project himself across the galaxy and successfully put Kylo in his place. Luke wins in the most Jedi way possible, and Kylo is left empty handed.

Now, The Last Jedi was only the second episode in a trilogy, so with the exception of Snoke, none of our villains are fully defeated forever. That leaves the final episode in the saga, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, to wrap things up. And how do our remaining villains get vanquished? I’ll go in order.

First there’s Hux. By the end of The Last Jedi, the rivalry between Kylo and Hux has escalated do downright hatred. Hux clearly has distain for Kylo’s wasting time with Luke and letting the Resistance escape. How does this play out? Well, through a series of complicated events, Hux reveals to our heroes that he is the spy that has been passing useful info onto the Resistance during the film. He is very clear that he does not care about their little rebellion. He has no intention of actually joining them. He just wants Kylo Ren to lose! General Armitage Hux being the pettiest of petty bitches is very much in keeping with his character. It also doesn’t redeem him in the slightest. To be clear, he’s still a bad guy. He surely still believes in the First Order. He’s just doing what he can to wrest what little power he can away from Kylo Ren. And how does this play out? What is Hux’s ultimate comeuppance? He dies. Hux is unceremoniously shot by a fellow First Order general for being a traitor.

Oh, did I mention that the Emperor is back? Through Sith dark magic and plot reasons, Emperor Palpatine has once again reappeared on the scene because, in the current parlance, he’s a messy bitch who lives for drama.
Anyway, he has been secretly building a fleet that will destroy the good guys once and for all and rule the galaxy in fear. At the beginning of the movie, Kylo Ren (now officially Supreme Leader of the First Order) is actually hunting for Palpatine because he sees him as a threat to his power, but good ol’ Palpy tempts him with the power to rule all and sit on a badass throne. Kylo goes for it, and starts hunting for Rey, the only one (he decides) that can stop him. Through another series of events too complicated to explain, Kylo Ren is metaphorically killed and Ben Solo reawakens and sets out to help Rey defeat the reborn Emperor Palpatine. Their teamup kinda plays into his plan and gives him even more ultimate power!

Rey and Ben are both drained of their life forces and left for dead. In the final moments, Rey gains new strength by connecting to the voices of all the past Jedi we’ve ever heard in every iteration of canon from the Prequels through The Clone Wars to Rebels and the Original Trilogy. Palpatine uses SUPER SITH LIGHTNING in attempt to destroy Rey, but she uses both her/Luke’s/Anakin’s lightsaber and Leia’s lightsaber to shield herself from the Dark Side power with the help of all the thousand generations of Jedi within her, and Palpatine’s aggression is reflected back on him and he is destroyed utterly (not unlike how a certain Ark of the Covenant melts Nazis). So, Palpatine dies.

And then we come to the fate of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. Rey has used up the last of her life force in defeating Palpatine and lays dead, so in a last act of selflessness, Ben heals her with the Force (a power we have seen from both Rey and The Mandalorian’s Baby Yoda), which in turn drains all of his life energy. And… he dies.

So, at the end, the galaxy celebrates freedom again, our hero friends reunite, and all the bad boys causing all the problems of the universe have died to never cause any more.

But I was wondering… what if they didn’t die?

I started really thinking about this, both in relationship to the big franchises above (and others) which killed off all their villains and in comparison to Aang’s defeat of the Fire Lord.

It seems to me that ending the villains’ lives is a bit too easy. It lets them off the hook. I mean, okay, Emperor Palpatine (a.k.a. Darth Sidious), like the Dark Lord Sauron from The Lord of the Rings and Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter, is the embodiment of evil. He is as much a metaphor for living evil as he is a human character. The point of the mythological storytelling of Star Wars is to show the good vanquishing evil forever, so it makes sense that he is utterly destroyed down to a subatomic level. Voldemort’s fate in the Harry Potter books and movies is essentially the same (he dies), though in the books he dies and his body is left an empty shell to be ignored whereas in the movie, he disintegrates, I suppose because you can’t have even a reminder of evil remaining even though there is nothing to be feared from Voldy’s dead body. And Sauron was never actually able to return to his corporeal form, so his only physical manifestation is in the One Ring, which melts in the fires of Mount Doom and destroys his remaining spirit. Again, the movie visualizes this in a much more spectacular way. So, at the end of the day, it makes sense that Palpy needed to go. But what about Hux and Kylo?

Hux surviving the defeat of the First Order would leave him powerless and certainly having to answer to war crimes. Killing him just lets him off the hook. Oh well, he’s dead, don’t have to deal with that. But him helplessly watching as his “superior” First Order crumbled under the opposition of the Resistance and the free peoples of the galaxy? That could have been a delicious comeuppance.

And Ben Solo, despite returning to the light side at the end, much like Anakin Skywalker, still did awful things as Kylo Ren. What would have happened if he survived and he returned with Rey back to the Resistance base? How would everyone have reacted to him? No one else saw his good deeds, defeating the Knights of Ren and helping Rey defeat Palpatine and saving her life, but they all know how he lead the First Order in killing off their friends and loved ones. Even if they believed his helping Rey was genuine, how could they trust him? How would he rejoin society? How would he face the people (like Poe) who he tortured?

This is a very interesting and difficult scenario that the movie avoids by killing him off. Like I said, it lets him off the hook.

In the lead up to The Rise of Skywalker, I often joked about how I wanted the movie to skip to the end of the war and just be Judgment at Space Nuremberg. But I still like that idea. Kylo and Hux facing the end of their power and having to come to terms with their crimes, either owning up to them, denying them or otherwise, that would have been a very interesting way to explore their characters.

Even thinking about Avengers and Game of Thrones… What if at the end of Endgame, our heroes secure the Infinity Stones and defeat Thanos’ army, but Thanos is left alive and powerless? He had so convinced himself that he was doing the right thing, that he was the galaxy’s savior, what if he was forced to face the truth that he was wrong, that he caused more suffering than he thought he was preventing, that he was actually not a genius mastermind and savior but actually a hated madman with a terrible, terrible plan? What if Cersei had survived the siege of King’s Landing to see others take over Westeros and (attempt to) make it a better place? What if Daenerys wasn’t put down but forced to face the fact that she had become the mad tyrannical queen she promised she would never become?

What if Darth Vader survived after the end of Return of the Jedi and had to face his daughter Leia, who he tortured and terrorized?

What if all these villains, after being defeated and having their power taken away, had lived and had to face real emotional consequences for their actions? Because death is just too easy sometimes.

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